Transparent Audio REF XL Cables and Power Products

PeterA

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Dec 7, 2011
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North Shore of Boston
I have been fortunate these last few weeks to audition a complete suite of Transparent Audio REF XL cables and power products. I own what I had thought was a fairly high-resolution two-channel audio system and listen mostly to small-scale jazz and classical music. My main reference is the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at which I recently joined Carl Smith and Brad O’Toole from Transparent to hear an all-Wagner program conducted by Daniele Gatti with vocal excerpts sung by Mezzo-Soprano Michelle DeYoung. It was a superb performance and a very memorable occasion.

With the music fresh in my ears, I was eager to go home and listen to the same music on my system. I have a recording of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” sung by Birgit Nilsson, conducted by George Solti and performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on the London label. At the BSO we heard the Prelude and Liebestod (“Love-Death’). What follows is a description of what the REF XL cables and power products sounded like in my system with this music and with some other selections.

Each time I attend a concert, I am struck by just how absolutely pure and beautiful the sound is in that glorious and famous hall. From the quietest, simple triangle strike or piano note to the loudest and most complex crescendo, the music is always clean, clear and undistorted. Every nuance, tonal color and reflection is easily heard from my seat in the eighth row, just left of the center aisle. I listen, absorbed by the energy and power of the music being played by the musicians and interpreted by the conductor. Though the sound is great, it is the music and the performance that I most want to experience.

It is that sense of incredible immediacy, clarity and impact generated by the instruments that I was not hearing from my system at home. Sure, my system sounds good and I really enjoy playing my LPs in the evenings and learning more about music, but when I return from an afternoon at the symphony and then listen at home, I am always aware that I am missing the energy and experience of a live performance. There is surely more musical information buried in the grooves of my record collection. It is almost as if there is a layer of fog or haze between me and the music, an artifact preventing the system from sounding truly convincing. It has become clear to me that the biggest difference between what I hear from an orchestra and what I hear at home is in the silence between the notes, the contrast between soft and loud, the content of musical details and the spatial context of the recording space.

Transparent Audio describes its goals as focused on three areas: Dynamics, Tone, and Space. These are the sonic characteristics that convince the listener that a musical performance sounds real. After listening extensively to the REF XL suite of products, and recalling what I hear at the BSO, I would describe the sound as being superior to other cables that I have had in my system in three basic ways: contrast, content and context.

(dynamic) CONTRAST: The noise floor with the REF XL cables, power cords, and PowerIsolator is lower than with my current cables. This allows me to hear more information. The contrast between soft and loud is greater. The delicate decay of a piano will slowly fade to silence, and then massed strings or tympani explode in the room, filling the space and washing over the listener. There are multiple sonic colors and nuance, but with these cables, the varying shades of grey turn to deep, black nothingness. This increased contrast heightens the sense of excitement and is much closer to the sound of a live performance. This also allows low-level details to be more easily heard. Extension is often used to describe how high or low audible frequencies reach. But this lower noise floor also affects the extension of sounds in terms of volume. With less noise to listen over or to filter out, soft sounds are heard becoming even softer, finally disappearing, and loud sounds can seem explosive because of the increased contrast. Perhaps this is what is referred to as dynamic extension. It is the opposite effect of the compression techniques that are used in modern recordings, in which everything is made to sound loud. A live symphony performance has absolutely no compression. The result of this increased contrast is that the system sounds more real.

(tonal) CONTENT: The amount of sonic content with the REF XL cables is much greater than with my cables. I hear more instrumental and vocal texture. There is more harmonic information. I especially notice this on cello bowing and piano strikes, sustains and decays. Brass cymbals and bells ring longer and cleaner. Horns have more bite. Transients are faster and clearer. Complex sounds like choral songs and massed strings are more defined. Tonal colors are more dense and timbre is more accurate. Instruments have more weight and body. There is more nuance to voices. Simply put, the cables are more resolving. Equally important however, is what does not come through. It is wonderful to hear more information, but it is also important to hear fewer artifacts - more of the good and less of the bad. There is no grain, glare, or grunge at the BSO. Nothing sounds colored. There is no sense that one frequency is emphasized over another. Sure, there are tonal balance decisions made by the placement of the instruments on the stage relative to where one sits and listens, but hearing as much of what is on the recording with as little overlaid as possible is, or should be, the goal. These cables have fewer of these artifacts. They are also very smoothly balanced. Unlike some other cables I have heard, they do not seem to emphasize one frequency over another. They also have greater frequency extension. They sound more clear, clean and coherent that my cables do, which enables the system to sound more like real music.

(special) CONTEXT: The REF XL cables better define the recording space context for the listener. The combination of increased contrast and lower noise floor with the added content or information result in a much better sense of “being there”. I had not really understood the distinction between the performance existing in one’s listening room versus the listener being transported to the performance space until I heard these cables in my system. In a well-treated listening room, and in a system capable of high resolution, these cables allow so much information through, that one cannot help but feel present at the performance space. The system disappears to a greater degree and sounds more spatially natural. Music emerges and flows around the room, filling it with spatial cues that enable the listener to believe he is somewhere else. The overall sound is bigger and more dimensional. Depth is increased and is more layered. Massed strings or voices become individual instruments, clearly defined in space rather than indistinct or homogenized sounds. The bass is clearly in front of and to the left of the piano. The piano is a Grand and it is near a curtain on a wooden stage in a small club with a clumsy waiter delivering a cocktail with ice.

These three characteristics - contrast, content, and context - all significantly contribute to the system sounding more like live music. By comparison, my current cables sound compressed, as if they are choking the signal and restricting the flow of music. They sound closed in and rolled off slightly. Important sonic information is being kept from the listener, preventing a more complete musical experience.

I used to think that a good system was basically a collection of good components. I have come to realize that to be able to approach the sound of real music, the owner must also address three crucial areas in order for his system to meet its potential: serious attention to the room/speaker/listener relationship, proper component isolation from the environment, and effective cable connections and power conditioning.

Two years ago, I was fortunate to have Jim Smith, author of Get Better Sound, voice my system to my room. I later installed Vibraplane air-isolation platforms under my turntable and amplifiers, and I have now just heard a suite of cables and power products which enable the components to sound their best and reduce noise. These three often overlooked areas, have elevated the system to a completely new level.

One of my goals in writing this review was not to use the word “transparent” to describe these products because I am sure it has already been done. The other was not to try to describe the network boxes because I do not really understand what they do. I will simply say that the cables are calibrated to the specific components with which they are to be used and I think the networks reduce noise. I can say, however, that the REF XL cables and power products certainly achieve the three characteristics that Transparent Audio lists as its goals: Dynamics, Tone, and Space. I will conclude by mentioning that the build quality of these products is exceptional and that the packaging in which they arrive is of the highest level.

Having spent some time now reflecting on the importance of cables and power in one’s system, I am reminded of a moment in Vienna with my good friend, Dr. Peter Poltun, Director of the Archives for the Weiner Staatsoper. We were taking a break from listening to a closed rehearsal of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Knowing he was about to make another one of his important pronouncements, I sat upright and listened closely. He leaned over, looked me in the eye, pointed at the first violin and, in his affable, yet emphatic way said, “Peter, that assemblage of wood, strings and glue is nothing more than a pile of useless junk unless that musician imbues it with the purpose for which it was built. That purpose is to make it SING. It must sing like the very first instrument ever played. And that very first instrument ever played was our voice, singing our song, WHILE WE WERE STILL LIVING IN THE TREES.”

When someone asks, “How important are cables?” I will smile remembering what Peter Poltun told me and thinking of these Transparent Audio products. They enable a system to fulfill its purpose. And if the cables are really, really good, like Michele DeYoung or Birgit Nilsson, they will allow the system to SING.


Peter Ayer

Link to my system:http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?vevol&1160426766&openmine&zzPeterayer&4&5#Peterayer



List of Transparent Audio cables and power products:
Ref XL Phono din to RCA
Ref XL 3’ RCA IC
Ref XL 20’ XLR IC
Ref XL 8’ mono Speaker Cable
Ref PowerLink 6’ Power Cord
Ref PowerLink 3’ Power Cord
Ref PowerLink 3’ Power Cord
Ref PowerIsolator


List of recordings used for evaluation, all on LP:
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Solti, Nilsson, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, London Stereo
Brahams, Piano Concerto No. 1, Arrau, Haitink, Philips
Beethoven, Violin Concerto, Grumiaux, Davis, Philips
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Academy of St. Marin-in-the-Fields, Argo
J. S. Bach, Three Sonatas for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord, Fink, Dreyfus, Denon
Cantate Domino, Motettkor, Proprius
Mozart, Fantasy K.475, Sonata K.457, Fantasy K.397, Rondo K.511, Arrau, Philips
Shirley Horn Trio, A Lazy Afternoon, SteepleChase
Johnny Hartman, Once in Every Life, Beehive
Carla White, Mood Swings, Milestone
The Sheffield Drum Record, Jim Keltner, Ron Tutt, Sheffield


List of system components:
SME 30/12A turntable
SME V-12 tone arm
Air Tight Supreme cartridge
Pass Labs Xono phono amplifier
Pass Labs XP-20 pre amplifier
Pass Labs XA160.5 amplifiers
Magico Mini 2 speakers
3 Vibraplane isolation platforms
Harmonic Technologies cables
EquiTech balanced power conditioner
 
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edorr

WBF Founding Member
May 11, 2010
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Smyrna, GA
So what are your "current cables". Apologies if you mention it somewhere, I did not see it.

No doubt the Transparents are fine cables but to understand and appreciate the leap in performance it is useful to know your baseline.
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
7,802
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North Shore of Boston
So what are your "current cables". Apologies if you mention it somewhere, I did not see it.

No doubt the Transparents are fine cables but to understand and appreciate the leap in performance it is useful to know your baseline.

Hello edorr, I listed them in my equipment list at the end of the review: Harmonic Technologies. Magic Link One ICs, Pro 9+ speaker cables, Fantacy AC-10 power cords. Interestingly, the HT cables are also pretty smoothly balanced and a great value overall. This smooth balance is what I preferred about the Transparents compared to the MIT Matrix 90 cables that I also tried in my system. The Transparents are just better than the Harmonic Technologies in all areas.
 

edorr

WBF Founding Member
May 11, 2010
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S
Hello edorr, I listed them in my equipment list at the end of the review: Harmonic Technologies. Magic Link One ICs, Pro 9+ speaker cables, Fantacy AC-10 power cords. Interestingly, the HT cables are also pretty smoothly balanced and a great value overall. This smooth balance is what I preferred about the Transparents compared to the MIT Matrix 90 cables that I also tried in my system. The Transparents are just better than the Harmonic Technologies in all areas.

Ahhh .... I missed that. That is important context, because you went three steps up the cable food chain at >10x the price, so anything short of a material improvement would have been a disappointment.
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
7,802
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760
North Shore of Boston
S

Ahhh .... I missed that. That is important context, because you went three steps up the cable food chain at >10x the price, so anything short of a material improvement would have been a disappointment.

Well, not quite that extreme. The full retail price for the Transparent Audio is more like five times (5X) the full retail price of the Harmonic Technology cables, AND I bought the HT cables eight years ago in 2005. Technology has advanced since then.
 

edorr

WBF Founding Member
May 11, 2010
3,146
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Well, not quite that extreme. The full retail price for the Transparent Audio is more like five times (5X) the full retail price of the Harmonic Technology cables, AND I bought the HT cables eight years ago in 2005. Technology has advanced since then.

I thought the reference XL speaker cables were around $13K and the harmonic 9+ around a grand.....
 

Frank750

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Jul 9, 2011
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Thanks for the nice write up Peter! Having recently changed all my cabling to MIT MA-X, I have a good feeling for what you're hearing. I was in total awe of what these cables did for my system and there was no turning back after I auditioned them.
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
7,802
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North Shore of Boston
I thought the reference XL speaker cables were around $13K and the harmonic 9+ around a grand.....

I was comparing the entire suite: speaker cables, 2 ICs, 4 power cords, phono cable. IOW, all eight cables. The greatest spread is with the speaker cables, as you suggest. There is no denying that the TA cables cost quite a bit more.
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
7,802
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North Shore of Boston
Thanks for the nice write up Peter! Having recently changed all my cabling to MIT MA-X, I have a good feeling for what you're hearing. I was in total awe of what these cables did for my system and there was no turning back after I auditioned them.

Hi Frank, Yes, I've heard an entire suite of top-tier MIT cables in systems that sounded really excellent. Usually systems with Magico speakers. Unfortunately, I was only able to audition the MIT Matrix 90 speaker cables in my system, so it's not really a fair comparison with my Harmonic Technology cables thrown into the mix. I'm sure they effected the sound of the MITs and that an entire suite of MIT would have sounded much different.

These cable auditions have really helped me appreciate what well-designed cables can contribute to an overall system.
 

microstrip

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May 30, 2010
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I was comparing the entire suite: speaker cables, 2 ICs, 4 power cords, phono cable. IOW, all eight cables. The greatest spread is with the speaker cables, as you suggest. There is no denying that the TA cables cost quite a bit more.

Peter,
I am happy that you tried the full set of Transparent cables. The XL, Reference and Opus MM2 are great cables, and in the appropriate system can be a big step towards some of us call music realism - a sound that manages to emerge us in a performance that sounds less mechanical and electronic and more human.

Your description, referring to absence of fog and more clarity and immediacy is online we my findings on the effects of Transparent Audio cables in systems that accept them. They are not detail oriented cables, but still manage to show all the information in a clear way and achieve a very layered image.

Nice to know that they sound so good with Pass Electronics.
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
7,802
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North Shore of Boston
A fascinating write up--thanks!

A quick question, though: which model(s) of Vibraplane do you use?

I have two active (self-leveling) 24" X 20" units and one passive 24" X 20" unit. All three are fed by a compressor in the basement.
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
7,802
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North Shore of Boston
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LL21

Well-Known Member
Dec 26, 2010
12,064
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Congrats Peter A. I have been using Transparent Ref cables for nearly a decade. I bought my first one second hand after reading reviews and speaking with a few people...a massive upgrade from my 20yr old AQ Crystal cable...I kept a suite of second hand TA Ref cables up until only this year with NO desire to upgrade at all. I have since upgraded to RefMM and RefXL (both MM2)...I completely agree with your review.

I also use HRS nimbus couplers/dampers on all my components except the amp which is a vertical floorstander with its own isolation. I also use an HRS M3 isolation platform on my Transport...so completely agree with you there as well. Enjoy your amazing system...looks extremely well designed.
 

jfrech

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Peter wins my reviewer of the year award. I've read it 3 times....
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
7,802
3,459
760
North Shore of Boston
Congrats Peter A. I have been using Transparent Ref cables for nearly a decade. I bought my first one second hand after reading reviews and speaking with a few people...a massive upgrade from my 20yr old AQ Crystal cable...I kept a suite of second hand TA Ref cables up until only this year with NO desire to upgrade at all. I have since upgraded to RefMM and RefXL (both MM2)...I completely agree with your review.

I also use HRS nimbus couplers/dampers on all my components except the amp which is a vertical floorstander with its own isolation. I also use an HRS M3 isolation platform on my Transport...so completely agree with you there as well. Enjoy your amazing system...looks extremely well designed.

lloydelee21, Thank you for the nice comments. Cables and isolation are overlooked areas in my opinion. They don't have the excitement factor that a shiny new massive turntable or big speaker system have, but they are essential to getting the most out of one's system. They have really improved things in my case and I'm fortunate to have discovered the REF XL line.
 

PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
7,802
3,459
760
North Shore of Boston
Peter wins my reviewer of the year award. I've read it 3 times....

John, you are too kind. It was actually kind of fun to write the review. I'm glad you continue to enjoy reading it. Laughs.
 

still-one

VIP/Donor
Aug 6, 2012
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Peter
Thanks for the excellent write-up. I have been a proponent of network boxes such as those used by Transparent and MIT for several years now. I have been using Transparent's Reference level cables since I moved to my X2 Series 2 about 6 months ago. I was very, very content. As I tired of waiting for D'Agostino's pre-amp to become available for an audition in my system I decided to borrow a pair of Opus SC. What a mistake. They been sitting in my system for two weeks now. I have tried swapping back to the Reference level but that only lasted a couple of hours each time. I am trying very hard to talk myself out of purchasing them but all seems futile.
 

LL21

Well-Known Member
Dec 26, 2010
12,064
800
658
Peter
Thanks for the excellent write-up. I have been a proponent of network boxes such as those used by Transparent and MIT for several years now. I have been using Transparent's Reference level cables since I moved to my X2 Series 2 about 6 months ago. I was very, very content. As I tired of waiting for D'Agostino's pre-amp to become available for an audition in my system I decided to borrow a pair of Opus SC. What a mistake. They been sitting in my system for two weeks now. I have tried swapping back to the Reference level but that only lasted a couple of hours each time. I am trying very hard to talk myself out of purchasing them but all seems futile.

Wow! Great news! (other than for the wallet!)...can you describe the differences between Opus and Ref? I use Ref XL MM2 at the moment. Most intrigued!
 

jap

Banned
Apr 7, 2012
542
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0
From the reviews and reports I've read about Magico Q1s, it seems to me that upgrading Peter's Mini IIs to Q-1s would have produced a bigger improvement than spending all that money on cables.
 

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